Disinformation is present in the provincial election campaign but does not play a major role, experts say

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The election could involve fewer people and provide less fuel for social media stories of outrage, due to the comfortable lead in the polls enjoyed by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative party.

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It was September 16, 1926, two days after a contentious federal election that saw William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal party win the most seats in parliament.

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The results were then interpreted in newspapers across the country and in The Ottawa Citizen, which then presented itself as an “independent and clean newspaper for the house”, a commentary denigrating the negative campaign and the lies that marked the election.

Titled ‘disgusted by the backbiting’, the comment chastised politicians for resorting to the ‘most senseless maneuver’ in the scandal. “If only politicians realized this, they would fill voters with disgust with these bastard tactics. The effect on the average voter is that their faith in the integrity of government is sadly undermined.

But mud throwing – as it was known then (use of the term peaked in the 1950s and is becoming increasingly rare, according to Newspapers.com data) – continued to be a favorite tactic of politicians and their supporters.

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Now, attempting to undermine a rival’s reputation by making unfair or false claims is often referred to as “misinformation”, and while it’s not a new phenomenon, its presence in the chaotic landscape of the information from social media worries some experts. Voters, they say, should be on guard against false truths or lies spreading online, especially given the ongoing provincial election campaign in Ontario.

Take Chandra Pasma, for example. For the second time, the NDP candidate running for the seat of Ottawa West-Nepean has had to face misleading information circulating about her online.

Pasma featured in a meme – an image with text – taking one of her tweets out of context. “It’s Chandra Pasma,” the meme read. “She thinks having a job is ‘dehumanizing’.”

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A version of the meme was created in 2018 and circulated by Ontario Proud, an online source of mostly right-wing viral content. Pasma is running again in this election, and Ontario Proud posted a meme based on her tweet again, on May 14, and it has so far been shared by just over 130 people and garnered hundreds of comments. .

The meme did not convey an honest image of Pasma and her ideals. Pasma’s tweet, which became the source of the Ontario Proud post, was much more nuanced than depicted in the meme.

“It is disappointing to see people twisting the words of others and spreading false information,” Pasma said in a statement. “Groups like Ontario Proud are spreading misinformation, lies and pro-Conservative fearmongering. It escalates the tone of politics and it needs to stop.

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Ontario Proud did not respond to a timely request for comment.

But memes like this are commonly circulating on social media, especially during election campaigns. These memes, although based on true information, are devoid of context and are frequently used to distort and negatively portray political opponents.

“Politics is an extremely complex thing,” said Serge Blais, executive director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Professional Development, which recently announced that it will host the Information Integrity Lab, a research group that will review misinformation.

“Having positions summed up in a one-liner, in a picture, or in a meme, just doesn’t do it justice,” Blais continued. “There are layers you have to look at and, okay, not everyone has two hours in the morning to dig deep and do research. This is where good journalism comes in.

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But good journalism, Blais noted, isn’t always popular on social media, which often rewards the most engaging and provocative content.

“Social media has amplified the spread of misinformation to an order of magnitude never seen before,” he said. “Social media, what they’re doing now, it’s kind of like a vortex – the tornado effect – the lie gets aired, it’s uneditorialized, it’s unverified and it repeats itself a thousand times a day Repeat a lie a thousand times, people will start to believe it.

“What the people driving the disinformation have now is a very powerful tool that costs next to nothing to create that repetition, to create outrage.”

But misinformation, perhaps under different names, has always been part of politics.

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“In many ways, this has always been part of political life,” Scott Edward Bennett, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, said in an email. Social media, Bennett added, has made it easy to spread “questionable information” and use “pseudo-participants,” commonly known as “bots,” to artificially boost the momentum of certain posts.

Bennett noted, however, that following the US election where disinformation figured prominently, the public became skeptical of attempts to build momentum for certain messages and information.

Blais and Bennett agree that the spread of misinformation does not appear to have a significant impact on provincial elections in Ontario – so far.

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The election could involve fewer people and provide less fuel for social media stories of outrage, due to the comfortable lead in the polls enjoyed by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative party. Bennett said a more compelling election contest pits the NDP against the Liberals, who are fighting a close battle for second place, according to recent polls.

“We’ll see a lot of social media and other media content where the goal is to take second place,” Bennett said. “Are many people reading this material and responding to it? Probably not. It’s hard to find good data on this, but I think even people who normally follow politics are a little disinterested in this election.

But, Blais warned, while misinformation doesn’t seem to sway large swathes of the electorate this time around, or Canadian society doesn’t appear to be as divided by partisan narratives as the United States, that doesn’t mean not that we should let our guard down.

“Let’s not be too naive and too complacent about this,” he said. “We have to be vigilant. We have to be aware that it is just below the surface and we have to be aware of what is there. Good misinformation is very insidious, it’s not the kind of stuff in the mouth we’re used to.

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